Coronavirus: Watchdog seeks emergency powers to curb price rises

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Reports of price-gouging have involved hundreds of businesses, the CMA says

The UK’s consumer watchdog has asked the government to bring in emergency laws to stop retailers profiteering during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Competition and Markets Authority said it had written to “hundreds of businesses” charging inflated prices for products such as hand sanitisers.

The CMA said “emergency time-limited legislation” would give it a better chance of dealing with the problem.

Otherwise, it would use existing powers “to the maximum possible extent”.

Both the CMA and Trading Standards say they have received a high volume of complaints about price-gouging during the pandemic.

The CMA has launched a taskforce to crack down on businesses that may be engaging in price-gouging and to consider whether there have been any breaches of competition or consumer laws.

According to the Financial Times, which first reported the story, the CMA received more than 20,000 coronavirus-related complaints between 10 March and 19 April.

On average, the prices complained about had gone up by 130%. In the case of hand sanitisers, prices had risen by an average of 367%.

“Our Covid-19 taskforce continues to scrutinise reports of potentially harmful sales practices, including inflated price rises,” the CMA said in a statement. “The vast majority of businesses are doing the right thing, but where there is evidence that firms may have broken the law, we’ll be using our existing powers to the maximum possible extent.

The CMA said it had already written to hundreds of businesses asking them to explain their inflated prices. “What we find out will help us decide whether and where we can take further action,” the organisation said.

It added: “Along with our existing powers, we have also advised the government on options for emergency time-limited legislation that could give a better chance of dealing with this type of problem.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Business said “the vast majority of businesses” were acting responsibly during the pandemic, adding that reports of profiteering to the CMA had fallen.

“The CMA deals directly with firms to address any complaints and we continue to keep the issue under review,” the spokesperson said.

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